The spy world just got a lot wilder in a way that even creative persons might have never imagined.
The Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and special sensitive cyber units of the police are filling up with haredim.
Since 2019, there has been a smattering of articles about the Pardes, which is leading the charge to incorporate some of the smartest and most talented ultra-Orthodox men aged 24 to 34 into analyst and cyber units of the security establishment.
But recently the Magazine became the first to sit down with four of these new recruits.
Arrangements leading up to the meeting took months, requiring sign-offs from the highest levels of the Mossad, Shin Bet and police in order to allow us to meet face to face with secret agents who, in normal circumstances, would never come anywhere near the media.
With all four individuals who the Magazine met – known as “G” (from the Mossad), “Y” (from the Shin Bet), Yisrael and Yoni (from the police) – only their wives are in the know, with even their parents not having a clue what their real day jobs are.
G: the Mossad’s haredi agent
G describes his attraction to the Mossad as a natural process.
“I grew up in a family connected to the technology and security sector. That was always in the background.”
These simple early sentences were spoken haltingly by someone already in the clandestine world, not used to talking to journalists, but over the course of the meeting, he became more comfortable.
He implied that even as a child he dreamt of either the Mossad or some kind of contribution to the nation’s security apparatuses.
But G said that it was “Pardes which gave the opportunity. A friend saw an advertisement on the Internet. I eventually went through the very long process for getting selected and being endorsed by Pardes.”
Pardes’s founder and Dean of Beit HaMidrash is Rabbi Moshe Kahan , a graduate of the leading Tifrah and Mir yeshivas after years of Talmudic study, but also a lecturer on Arabic and the Koran, and at Ben-Gurion University on Semitic languages.
Pardes enables haredi youth to train in a track that is managed and run within a haredi framework, with the candidates free to continue studying Torah alongside their coursework in an ultra-Orthodox environment.
After passing the obscenely competitive screening process, each went through pre-academic preparatory courses in the fields of computer science, geopolitics and international relations before applying for jobs in the security establishment.
Describing his experience in the Mossad after passing through the whole process, G said he was “very happy to learn he had arrived at this place. It has fulfilled all of my expectations… From the beginning, the things that were revealed to me and what I learned were incredible.”
The Mossad official said he hoped to do his entire career with the spy agency.
One thing that was striking was that though G was thoroughly haredi, dressed in black and white, he truly spoke like a seasoned Mossad veteran about achieving national security results. He was very polished, talked the talk and if my eyes had been closed, I would have had no idea he was ultra-religious.
In an uncommon reveal, the spy world analyst related how in recent weeks his critical Talmudic training to constantly examine presumptions tipped him off that something was missing from a specific intelligence picture.
“I went and checked and the issue had come up some years earlier, and I found something else that led to real-world implications recently,” G said, using implied Mossad-speak for the world of operations.
Addressing differences between himself and his fellow Mossad agents, he noted that both he and others all brought their “unique perspectives and different backgrounds so that everyone around the table has a different perspective on intelligence issues.”
He said this singular Israeli diversity gives the Mossad an edge over other countries’ intelligence agencies that might be more homogeneous, which could lead to missing important sides of a problem.
Y: the Shin Bet’s haredi agent
Unlike G, Y working in cyber for the Shin Bet, did not grow up with any exposure to the security establishment.
But “two years ago I felt something missing, I felt I needed something more. I happened to see an advertisement on the Internet. I had tried something else in the working world, but I wanted to do something good for the world, not just make money.”
In terms of discussing with his wife being a trailblazer haredi member of the Shin Bet, Y said it was not one discussion but an extended process. While he was not always convinced he wanted to do it, he recounted, his wife was supportive of helping him explore his own path.
He described the studying he had to do through Pardes to prepare for the Shin Bet as “very intensive. I didn’t know any English or math. I learned from 9 a.m. until midnight.”
There has been one instance already where his Shin Bet staff head complimented him on an idea he came up with. Like the haredi Mossad official, he said his Talmudic studies have helped him arrive at some distinct perspectives.
Special haredi challenges
The Magazine questioned the group of haredi security officials about issues they faced in a mostly secular workforce.
G from the Mossad said, “The director of the Mossad at Herzliya [in a major July 2019 speech] said very good things about encouraging a diverse group in the Mossad… I see a strong will and commitment for all people to keep their religious lifestyle standards. There are no problems. A few years ago they had already brought a rabbi into the organization for asking Jewish law questions.”
He said he trusts the Mossad rabbi and that he even knew of the family beforehand and had already respected the man.
The spy analyst said, “I have not yet had to work on Shabbat, but if state security is at stake, we can figure out how to act.” Likewise, the Shin Bet official said he had not yet needed to violate Shabbat as part of his work responsibilities.
However, there is a whole different kind of challenge for haredi men serving in the national security establishment: secular women.
And while in the IDF or the police, uniforms ensure a certain amount of modest dress, the Mossad and the Shin Bet are known as more informal both in dress and in interactions.
The Shin Bet official, Y, noted that a fundamental value of his agency was to be receptive to the “other.” “My wife asked me: Did they do something special for you?” He explained that he told her that since everyone was treated with respect regardless of their background, he felt comfortable.
He said that Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman sets a top-down tone of ensuring everyone feels a sense of solidarity, camaraderie and mutual respect on a daily basis.
A senior official told the Magazine that Argaman had set a goal during his term of integrating people with diverse backgrounds into the agency. Y described debating with Tel Aviv nation operatives about “Who is a Jew? Are we a state of Jews? You need to explain your side and hear their side. I knew it even before, but it is not the same thing as when you meet it,” meaning Tel Aviv residents and their views.
G said, “It happens every day… I sat in a room with a woman from ‘Tel Aviv nation’ who did not know the haredi world. We debated questions about the future of the country: conversion, public transportation on Shabbat and other issues. I gave a different perspective. I explained the importance of the state remaining Jewish. I did not understand as much where she was coming from. At the end of the discussion, both sides knew more. I understood more of her ideas,” and vice versa, said the Mossad analyst.
While not wanting to wear the tag “Haredi Ambassador” and wanting to remain modest, their comments made it clear they indeed feel the need to act as ambassadors to help their secular coworkers bridge into understanding their world.
ANOTHER CHALLENGE that might be harder for haredim is working in security careers with demanding hours despite having a much larger number of children than their secular co-workers.
Asked if their unusual careers might lead them to have fewer children, all four men said this was not a consideration.
They affirmed they would have as many kids as they thought fit their haredi identities and find a way to make it work with their unusual jobs. Granted, to date, none of them has more than four kids yet.
G said, “There is no question that studying, working, corona and the kids at home all of the time has been challenging. You need to learn how to deal with the situation. I love my children. I also want to give them quality time with their parents. It doesn’t always work and I am not sure we have figured it out. How many hours is right? But it is important enough to seek to succeed with it.
“The kids feel ‘Dad is here.’ There are ways to be in touch. If they need to, they can get to Abba,” said the Mossad official.
It is essential to learn with his son for his bar mitzvah, he added, and to give all of his kids time.
G AND Y said they are constantly amazed by what they have learned on the job about the clandestine world.
“When you walk into the Mossad there are astounding things, beyond the imagination. I was in shock. Still, when I see things, what Israel does around the world is incredible and special. It has one of the best intelligence agencies – there is so much to learn,” said G.
Y said, “The capabilities I saw in the first week – I was in shock at the power of what happens every day. We just do it regularly. You see how many things happen behind the curtains, what individuals contribute to the collective. Behind the computer, how you think changes. Everyday there is evolving constantly. You see the other side differently; you see yourself differently.”
Within a short time at the Shin Bet, he said he quickly saw the immense gains for the country in thwarting terror and immediately saving lives.
Pressed if his current access to knowing how many terror plots are constantly underway has increased his terrorism concerns, he responded, “Now I worry less,” with a broad smile conveying confidence in the Shin Bet’s abilities.
Cyber police unit haredim: Yisrael and Yoni
The Magazine also spoke to Yisrael and Yoni, working in the police’s new elite cyber units.
Yisrael said that though his entire education was straight haredi, “I always knew I had the capabilities to do other things… I had a dream to join the police.”
Moreover, he said he wanted to help people with actions beyond his Torah study.
But, he recalled, joining was not easy.
“I hadn’t done the IDF and this was a very strange world for me.”
He did succeed, though, in “making very good friends.”
Yisrael shied away from discussing issues between the police and the haredi sector during the corona era, but acknowledged there was some general tension and that he hoped to be a bridge.
The other ultra-Orthodox police official we spoke with, Yoni, said that after a mostly straight haredi education he had started to study computer science and learned about the Pardes program. He saw Pardes as “integrating a degree with security, with intellectual challenges and fulfilling his curiosity.”
Yoni said the cyber police unit he works with “has really good people who are like a family there.”
Addressing the issue of having time with their families and whether their intense careers will impact how many kids they have, Yisrael said, “When you learn Torah or work, it comes at the expense of time with the kids. You give the kids what you can. You put the phone aside when you are at home. You try to give whatever you can for that short time.”
He added that in some ways the police job has made things better with his children.
“Before this I was less happy. Now I am happier, so I can give them more.”
Yisrael said he might have fewer kids than your average haredi family, but this was not connected to his job as much as a value judgment that he preferred to have more time with fewer kids as opposed to more kids with less time for each one.
Yoni said how many children they would have “depends on my wife.” He said so far they have two, but they would not drop having kids for career achievements as much as seeking the right general balance for various life goals.
Both Yisrael and Yoni said they had been exposed to a host of new aspects of the world through the police cyber unit.
Will haredi women join the ranks? Will haredim take part in field operations?
Interestingly, all four men said their wives were smarter than them and some better in the cyber arena.
In an interview a couple of years ago when the program was in its infancy, Kahan brushed off questions about haredi women joining the security services. However, during the interview with the four haredi men, Kahan strongly implied there would be an option for haredi women to join.
Pressed later for specifics, Kahan qualified his optimism on the issue.
“Everything is coordinated with the world’s leading rabbis… It will require a lot of thought. It will happen only if they support it. We have no preconceived ideas or goals – only if they declare it kosher.”
Rabbi Daniel Rabin is head of the Pardes Jewish Studies Program.
He learned at the Ponivich and Mir yeshivas, has been teaching in Jerusalem for decades and two years ago took over leadership of a specialized Torah study program called Yad Binyamin in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, which emphasizes bringing together both religious-Zionist and haredi Jews.
On female haredim joining the security establishment ranks, Rabin offered, “We don’t know. These are big decisions.”
Yet Kahan finished on a very optimistic and strategic-pragmatic note.
“There are more challenges with [haredi] women. Maybe, we won’t do it directly, but maybe Pardes will assist with the vetting and be the outsourcer” for assisting the security agencies in overcoming certain issues so as to better integrate haredi women.
Another question was whether haredim will ever move from being Mossad or Shin Bet analysts and cyber experts to carrying out operations in the field.
“There will be an appropriate consideration process with the world’s greatest rabbis,” Kahan said, asking, “Can someone go to this place or not? Each time they will check out if it is not appropriate.”
They explained that even as their Pardes graduates would be traveling to foreign countries in the capacity of analyst, hacker or tech support, once already in the field, the tech-support guy sometimes ends up needing to perform other operational roles as things unexpectedly come up.
Part of Pardes’ role, they said, was to prepare graduates for these kinds of issues as well as how, when and from whom to get halachic answers with discretion and in a timely manner.
Stability and trying to get haredim to change?
Regarding whether the security establishment would try to get their new haredi recruits to adapt, Kahan said, “The best way to have an impact is not to tell people how to change or to make a forced integration. Just provide a platform for people with a strong will and commitment to be able to contribute.”
Rabin added that the security services “do not want haredim to change because too much change shows instability.”
Noted Rabin, “We don’t look for ideological Zionists; it is not relevant. We want a love of the nation of Israel. They don’t need political idealism – they need someone with idealism who will really invest themselves.”
There is a huge problem in the security services where they invest a ton in new recruits and then after five years, they go to the private sector. Of this he added, “The rarest commodity today is idealism. This is how a yeshiva bochur is with everything. They are also idealistic about learning 18 hours a day.”
Learned haredim are uniquely trained to learn new things
The rabbis were also asked if they would recommend changing haredi elementary and high school curriculums for select students now that this opportunity has opened up, so they would be less far behind making the switch.
Rabin remembered that a top Shin Bet official told him, “The world of computers changes every two years. We’ve seen your guys’ capabilities to learn new things. They have been trained to incorporate new things. That is a gold mine – this gave me a confidence boost.”
“Their approach is not to attain integration, but to get a valued commodity.”
Getting Pardes started was no easy task.
Describing the process, Kahan said he first approached the Prime Minister’s Office, and from there, after many obstacles and working every possible connection, eventually succeeded in getting a meeting with Mossad Director Yossi Cohen who he said, “saw the bigger picture.”
Mossad Director Yossi Cohen said, "When Pardes came to me with the initiative, I knew this was an opportunity to both enhance Israel's security with a new untapped pool of talent and to increase diversity and understanding among the country's different sectors."
Cohen’s backing helped with the other services also showing interest.
A lot has been learned in the past few short years.
Pardes’s head of vetting and psychological evaluation is Orit Reiter of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Though she is secular, she is talented at “helping them come along” through both the vetting and preparation process for joining the security establishment.
She finds “the best haredim, figuring out categories to vet for. There is Torah and intellectual learning capacity, but there is also commitment, discretion for respecting considerations of information security, the ability to work with a team and motivation,” Rabin said.
Rabin explained a fascinating evolution that took place in discussions among the rabbis and Reiter, between the first and second year of preparing the questionnaire for vetting haredim.
Originally, the questionnaire asked, “How would you as a haredi man handle going to work with and holding a conversation with a secular woman?” with implications about both her identity and that she might be dressed less modestly than a haredi man is used to.
Rabin said that Reiter related that haredim opened up faster than secular interviewees, but she was unsure if she had really gotten through to them.
“We realized that a yeshiva student’s mind is split. The relations between a man and a woman is placed in a completely different world – the world of work relations. They don’t feel any [personal] connection, so they have it easier than a secular person,” said Rabin.
To draw out personal feelings that would show whether a haredi man could handle working with secular women, they changed the survey to ask about interactions specifically on break in the tea room.
Y gave tremendous credit to Kahan, saying, “He did so much. Not for getting honored or for money, but for the sake of Heaven. It was an idea with a purpose. We all went through a lot. Sometimes it was easier and sometimes it was harder. But we never give up.”